Wednesday was a warm, blue sky day in Milan. But in Piazza del Duomo, the heart of the city, there were no big groups of tourists ready to visit the cathedral, or employees rushing to their workplace in the surrounding business area. The square was nearly empty, except for some die-hard workers, a few stranded foreigners, and a horde of hungry photojournalists. Milan was in quarantine.

The first Covid-19 case in Italy was reported in the small Lombard town of Codogno, on 21 February: today, more than 10,000 people are infected with the virus and more than 1,000 have died. Since Tuesday Milan, like the rest of the country, has been almost completely locked down due to the Covid-19 outbreak. During the last three weeks, the city has become infamous for being the capital of Lombardy, the first region to become zona rossa — “red zone” — in Italy and to be quarantined in the Western world.

Three weeks ago, nobody thought things would get this bad this fast. Ten days ago people were living as normal. The mayor of Milan, Beppe Sala, was promoting a cheerful video reassuring his citizens, international tourists and businessmen that the inconvenience would only last for a short while, a small break from the routine of a thriving metropolis. The video was labelled with the hashtag #milanononsiferma, “Milano doesn’t stop.” Ten days later Milan has almost become a ghost city, and #milanononsiferma has been replaced by the far duller #iorestoacasa, “I stay home.

Today, fear is the mindset of the city and of the country. The government, led by Giuseppe Conte, used it as a last chance to persuade people to stay home and go out as little as possible, to slow down the pandemic. Milan is nearly empty, and anybody who needs to go outside uses a face mask — if they were fast enough to buy one at the beginning of the outbreak: now masks are nowhere to be found. Navigli nightlife district, a popular local and tourist destination for aperitivo, is deserted.

The Piazza del Duomo in Milan city centre. Home to Milan Cathedral, it is usually a tourist hotspot. It is now almost entirely deserted.

If communication has been hysterical and fragmented, active response has been lacking and improvised. One of the reasons why people are dying so fast in Lombardy is because the Lombard — and Italian — healthcare system is not built to fight a pandemic outbreak. There aren’t enough surgical masks for all the doctors fighting the pandemic in Lombardy, and there are not enough respirators for every acute patient in the region.

On Thursday, Lombard head councillor for the Healthcare sector, Giulio Gallera, stated that it is possible to build an emergency hospital in Milan city centre “in six days, if we have enough respirators.” The day before, Giorgio Gori, mayor of the Lombard city of Bergamo, said that “there are no more ICU beds,” and that “patients that can’t be treated are being left to die.” Gori later retracted his statement, but according to many medical sources, in various Lombard hospitals doctors are forced to “make a choice” between who is worth saving and who is not.

In Italy, every administrative region is relatively free to implement its own healthcare policy, following the national framework. The Italian NHS is considered to be one of the best in the world, but in the last few decades, centre-right parties governing Lombardy favoured private healthcare over it. At the same time, consecutive central governments defunded public healthcare with years of tagli — “cuts” — to cope with the economic stagnation affecting the country. From 2009 to 2017 the Italian NHS lost 46,000 employees and 70,000 beds. This combination severely affected the system and its overall strength and flexibility. Today, Italy has just 8.5 ICU beds for 100,000 inhabitants, while Germany has 35.

The crisis revealed an unexpected institutional struggle between Rome and the regional governors. This fuelled the feeling of confusion and fear in Milan and in the rest of the country. Most notably, the harshest clash was between Prime Minister Conte and the Lombard governor, Attilio Fontana. The lowest moment came on Saturday night, when an important decree draft was leaked to national and international press, possibly by someone at the top of the Lombard regional council, as reported by CNN.

Closed shops and restaurants – a scene which is now the new normal across Milan.

There is no doubt that Covid-19 is going to leave scars on Italian politics. The crisis has succeeded in decreasing the public visibility of populist leader Matteo Salvini — something nearly unbelievable. Two weeks ago, Salvini published some cringe-worthy facebook posts, where he proudly showed a huge dish of prosciutto in an idyllic mountain setting, or where he encouraged people to “come to Italy, the most beautiful country on Earth.” During February, Salvini asked for stricter measures against refugees from Libya, warning about the possibility of coronavirus coming from Africa. Ironically, some of the very first cases on African territory were exported by Italian travellers.

Meanwhile, the situation is far from stable. Social tensions are rising. Confindustria, the main Italian manufacturing and service companies association, pushed to keep open as many businesses as possible: this caused anger in the working class. Starting on Tuesday, several strikes erupted in industrial districts, such in FIAT-FCA in Pomigliano D’Arco. People are scared both for their health and for the crumbling economic situation of their country: yesterday Milan Stock Exchange experienced the worst day of its history, with a drop of -16%.

A woman wears a face mask while riding her bike down a deserted Milanese street.

Italians have to get used to a militarized, unreal lifestyle that has come completely out of the blue. There are checkpoints in every town, where “a valid reason” to be outside must be declared, and an autocertificazione, “self certification,” must be filed to go anywhere — even to the supermarket. Italian newspapers are now full of stories about teenagers trying to go to their girlfriend’s house only to be stopped and fined 200€; or homeless people questioned by the police for sleeping in Milano Lambrate railway station.

Older people who still remember the shortages and curfews of the Second World War are the most scared by the pandemic, since the mortality rate is far higher among them. Students don’t know if they will be able to come back to school before May. At first the situation looked like a fun holiday — but now schools have begun to give online lessons. Teachers are learning how to effectively deal with them, with no more indication by the central government than “do your best.”

Unfortunately, “do your best” seems to be the main policy the government has for the whole country in these dramatic days.

Stefano Colombo is an Italian blogger and journalist. He is the co-founder of The Submarine, a newspaper based in Milan. He writes about Lombard and national politics.